Unlearning the Lies Our History Teachers Taught Us

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I thought I knew the truth about the terrifying history of America. We were taught a history that never existed.

The Native Americans didn’t politely move to make room for colonizers from Europe.

Black slaves were not happy housekeepers and farm workers treated like part of the family.

Throughout our lives, the sugarcoated lies we’d been fed during our childhood in institutions of education would slowly unravel, mostly through accidental awareness instead of intention pursuit of knowledge. I am embarrassed to admit that I was in my late 20’s before I learned that Christopher Columbus was not some Indiana Jones of the high seas who had discovered a nearly empty continent that he claimed for the immigrants that would soon arrive from European Nations. What I did learn came in bits and pieces over years of listening to people often younger than myself or actual academics of history.

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The Connecticut Adventure, a fourth grade social studies textbook was pulled from the classrooms in January of 2017 for sanitizing slavery and forced assimilation into Christianity. Photo: Alex Von Kleydorff / Hearst Connecticut Media

The same with the horrors of slavery. It was a concept we were taught in class. I had gone to a predominantly black elementary school with all White teachers. I remember slaves being portrayed, not as human beings kidnapped and brutally beaten, raped and murdered, but individuals who anxiously came to the new world and worked on plantations to earn their keep with wealthy families. Perhaps it was delivered to us with such a saccharine twist to save Mrs. Vaffis from standing before mostly black students and describing the true horrors of their ancestry. A history so gruesome that it would have traumatized us all, for certain, but a necessary learning.

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We were allowed to see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the bloody history of the United States, which, by comparison to other countries, is still in its infancy. Events from a more recent history that still played upon the potential prejudices of the teachers responsible for informing us, like the Stonewall and the gay rights movement, or Roe vs. Wade, the landmark women’s movement were either briefly mentioned in a 10 minute lesson or not at all.

We were never taught what a transgender person was in health class, and our lesbian teacher had to send 16 kids out of our class before she could talk to us about sex. And gay sex was not part of the discussion.

Since the murder of George Floyd last May, I have had an unexpected education by virtue of the Black men and women whose very lives represent the ongoing consequences of our bleak past.

I am not alone when I say I woke up to a more complex, nightmarish and accurate history than any education ever afforded me. I learned about the monstrous brutality of Dr. James Marion Sims, the devastating pursuit and murder of Mary Turner and her unborn baby. I learned that long after the Confederates lost the Civil War, they continued to kidnap freed Black men, women and Children from the North and smuggle them back to the south to re-enlave them, an atrocity that continued for 84 years despite the Emancipation Proclamation. I learned that Black History did not end with Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman, because now I know countless names of Black Americans in history, some who died tragically, and others who lived to change the future. I learned how much of our culture we take for granted today has its roots in Black history- and it’s not just music and a few dance moves.

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A 1957 Virginia State School textbook said slaves were happy, often referring to them as servants.

But, even in more recent decades, I learned that Strom Thurmond, a United States Senator who supported segregation, beginning in 1961, met annually with other southern racist Senators to try to devise plans to keep Blacks segregated to their own spaces, far away from the perceived purity of their own whiteness.

Strom had many monuments and statues put up in his honor- including one in South Carolina that gives the names of his four beloved children- an inscription that had to be amended years later when it was revealed he fathered a fifth child, a daughter he did not claim, who was black.

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In the text accompanying Strom Thurmond’s statue at the Statehouse grounds, the phrase: “The father of four children,” had the “four” replaced with “five” after Thurmond’s fatherhood of Essie Mae Washington-Williams became public.

I now know history, real history, not just as abstract words in a book of brief chapters, but I now have a relationship with it. I know the names of slaves. I know the horrors of individual lynchings, once spoken about like a one size fits all topic in class, a thing that just happened. I know the cases George Meadows, a man accused of assaulting a white woman in 1889. However, she wasn’t certain it was him, so pleaded with an angry mob not to hang him. They did anyway, then, as he hanged there, riddled his body with bullets. As if that is not shocking enough, then they took him to the town square where he was displayed like a trophy. A few days later, the discovered it wasn’t him who had committed the assault at all. He was an innocent man… just one of thousands.

Keepers of America’s narrative- that which we would carry by simply being told rather than taught by many of our teachers- have tried hard to till the truth far under the blood stained soil of the past. We were allowed to disassociate from the severity of it, treat it like a story instead of history.

I have learned more from Black speakers in the last three months than I did in 12 years of school and higher education. My privilege allowed me distance from these truths with far to much ease. I didn’t have to avoid the obstacles of these truths because, as a perceived white person (I’m Lebanese) they were never put in my path. Black families have passed down these truths and the fear of racism is embedded in their DNA now, because the scaffolding we’ve built around black bodies never let them free enough to live a single day without it. George Floyd was not an isolated incident, either was Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Elijah Mcclain or any of the countless Black folks murdered by Police in savage forms of street justice, most of their killers never held to account for their crimes. These people were victims of a system that was never instituted to serve them, and their lives, like those killed before them, were expected to be met with the same indifference by white communities and people in power.

In 2020, the ghosts of our past raised up for a reckoning.

The stories passed down from Black Mother to Black child are being shared with all of us. We’re learning the old history from a new America that has shrouded itself in secrecy, abetted by ignorance and disinterest from those of us that never had a relative hanged 80 years ago, never had to worry if a toy gun we give our 10 year old for his birthday will get him shot by police today.

The real history of America, in all of it’s unthinkable, inhumane raw truth is being exposed and some white people are not adjusting- instead rebuking the truths in favor of the narrative they’ve been told. They want their racist monuments and flags preserved while trying to explain the symbolism away as their “Heritage” as if it’s something to be proud of instead of ashamed. Racism has reared its ugly head in response to the unsettling truths spilling over the banks of a river of lies as the fragility of the white ego trembles in its shadow.

We are, most of us, willing students, in spite of those clinging to the falsehoods of patriotism and pride- and what it means to be a Black American, even if it makes white people uncomfortable to stare their true history in the face and accept it as their own, too. As monstrous as it is, it is our shared history.

A history no longer satisfied with the silence that has shrouded it for centuries, but is here, now, for a long overdue reckoning with our social conscience.

Written by

Actor, Filmmaker, LGBTQ+ & Women’s Rights Activist All work copyright phaylens@gmail.com https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co

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